‘THAT CHURCH IS TAOS’

The artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion of San Fran­cisco de Asís

Tradiciones: Artes - - CONTENTS - BY ROBERT CAFAZZO

San Fran­cisco de Asís Catholic Church has been mouth-wa­ter­ing sub­ject mat­ter for pain­ters and pho­tog­ra­phers for over 100 years. Most artists choose to make im­agery of the back apse end where lie the ma­jor but­tresses of adobe bricks cov­ered in a plas­ter­ing of mud and straw. A who’s who of artists have vis­ited Ran­chos de Taos to cap­ture im­ages of the iconic church. Most, if not all, of the Taos So­ci­ety of Artists have made paint­ings of it. Oth­ers in­clude R.C. Gor­man, Fritz Scholder, Gus­tave Bau­mann, Gene Kloss, Joseph Imhoff, Emil Bist­tram, Ni­co­lai Fechin, Laura Gilpin along with far too many to men­tion here.

The im­agery of the church by Ansel Adams and Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe are of­ten thought of as the epit­ome of iconic pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing of this struc­ture. Ev­ery one of the artists who have come to Taos to cap­ture the spirit of this build­ing have hon­ored it.

Each artist has their own unique take on how to cap­ture an im­age of the church and what it means to them. There is great his­tory here of the church it­self, and the im­ages that have drawn the imag­i­na­tion of so many to see for them­selves. Sub­ject mat­ters abound in and around Taos for artists, from hol­ly­hocks to walk­ing rain and, of course, the build­ings of straw and mud, none more fas­ci­nat­ing than San Fran­cisco de Asís Church. There’s also been in­spi­ra­tion for artists, such as Mark Rothko for his Rothko Chapel paint­ings and Larry Bell’s “Gus’ Berg” with a glass panel rem­i­nis­cent of the church’s but­tress. As artist Thom Wheeler put it, The many paint­ings of the church by Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe tend to be vo­lu­mi­nous and sparse, ex­ag­ger­at­ing the con­tours and us­ing the sky above to add dra­matic color. In “Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, (A Stu­dio Book),” 1976, she had this to say: “The Ran­chos de Taos Church is one of the most beau­ti­ful build­ings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I sup­pose just as they have to paint a self-por­trait. I had to paint it — the back of it sev­eral times, the front once. I fi­nally painted a part of the back think­ing that with that piece of the back I said all I needed to say about the church.”

Ansel Adams’ clas­sic pho­to­graph, “Saint Fran­cis Church, Ran­chos de Taos, New Mex­ico,” taken from a low an­gle cre­ates an il­lu­sion of the church be­ing pushed by its but­tresses to­ward the heav­ens. In this pho­to­graph, the church has the ap­pear­ance of a mas­sive Meso-Amer­i­can pyra­mid or al­tar to the sky. Adams sin­gle-hand­edly made the San Fran­cisco de Asís Church unique and awe-in­spir­ing, a mecca for pho­tog­ra­phers.

Asked whether he’d ever made paint­ings of the Ran­chos church, Tony Abeyta was ex­cited to speak about his new work: “I started a paint­ing of the Ran­chos Church right af­ter Den­nis Hop­per died and when I went to his fu­neral. It be­came ap­par­ent to me that the church has been a land­mark for the com­mu­nity of Taos, for His­pan­ics, Na­tive Amer­i­cans and An­g­los alike. Bap­tisms, marriages, deaths. Ev­ery­thing has tran­spired on that plaza. The church has served so many peo­ple, in­clud­ing my­self. I opened my first gallery just to the back­side of that church, and have helped plas­ter the church years ago. I’ve felt so much a part of its plaza. I have been work­ing on this paint­ing for sev­eral years and have just fi­nally fin­ished it to in­clude in my up­com­ing ex­hibit at Owings Gallery in Santa Fe.”

In the early 1930s, Paul Strand pointed his cam­era at the Ran­chos church time and time again. His use of light, shadow and space are some of the most dra­matic im­ages of the church recorded by any pho­tog­ra­pher to this day. Most of Strand’s in­spi­ra­tional pho­tographs of the church are con­tained in the book “Paul Strand: South­west” by T. Will­ner-Stack & R. Bus­selle, 2005.

“The church was all I pho­tographed my first year (2001) liv­ing in Ran­chos,” said pho­tog­ra­pher Adam Schal­lau. “I was broke, couldn’t af­ford to travel and I could barely af­ford to de­velop a roll of film, but the church was there and I fell in love with it. Just about ev­ery day I would walk to the church to study the tex­ture, light, shadow and color. If things felt right,

I might cre­ate a pho­to­graph. It is a great place to make mis­takes and learn.”

‘One can see the love it takes to main­tain it. The Ran­chos church is one of the iconic won­ders of the South­west’.

The artists Harold Joe Wal­drum and Mar­garet Nes have cho­sen to rep­re­sent the church through some of the most col­or­ful cel­e­bra­tory paint­ings. Former gallery owner Tally Richards said, when re­fer­ring to the many church paint­ings of Harold Joe Wal­drum, “The churches unite the lit­eral with the myth­i­cal, the il­lu­sive and the essence of an ideal.” Wal­drum’s paint­ings are an ex­quis­ite or­ches­tra­tion of color.

To­day, Nes cre­ates a com­po­si­tional full­ness through her unique use of color. She uses a bright color pal­ette, with a shad­ing tech­nique that keeps the forms from be­com­ing blocks of color, giv­ing her church paint­ings a sense of vol­ume.

Artist Marvin Moon was truly taken with the church as sub­ject mat­ter. He’s made close to 200 paint­ings of it. He said, “That church is Taos, a spir­i­tual icon. It has a spir­i­tual and mag­i­cal qual­ity that speaks of Taos. I’ve been fas­ci­nated with the spir­i­tu­al­ity of it. A lot of peo­ple see paint­ings of the Ran­chos church and have no idea what it is.” For Moon, it is a spe­cial place that has been draw­ing him back to Taos since the early 1950s.

Whether you’re an artist or an ar­chi­tect, the church in Ran­chos has been in­spir­ing vis­i­tors for gen­er­a­tions. Re­cently, some­one asked why peo­ple make im­agery of the church. “Do they paint the back or the front? I think the back would be rather odd to paint, but maybe I’m miss­ing some­thing only artists un­der­stand. It just looks like odd ar­chi­tec­ture to me. Oh, I see, it’s al­most like an­cient Stone­henge. I see it now.”

Some­times vis­i­tors to the Ran­chos de Taos Plaza ask, “Where’s that fa­mous church?” while they are stand­ing at the back of it.

It’s al­ways tempt­ing to re­spond with, “We’d bet­ter check and see if they’ve moved it!”

Oth­ers ask, “Where are the paint­ings that O’Ke­effe made on the church?” When an­swered with, “Most of them are in mu­se­ums”, vis­i­tors be­come with­drawn and dis­ap­pointed. Ex­pect­ing some­thing else en­tirely their think­ing is that O’Ke­effe had painted the church, mean­ing that she painted mu­rals on it or per­haps in­side of it.

Taos art gal­leries where you can view paint­ings and pho­tographs of the Ran­chos Church in­clude Par­sons Gallery of the West, Wilder Nightin­gale Fine Art, Greg Moon Art Gallery, Ki­mosabe, Taos Print & Pho­tog­ra­phy, Mag­pie, DAFA, Thom Wheeler Gallery and Ed San­doval Gallery to name a few.

A bit of ad­vice for pho­tog­ra­phers:

Plan to take pho­tographs early in the morn­ing as the sun rises, or af­ter 3 p.m. Most days these are the qui­eter time pe­ri­ods of ac­tiv­ity around the church. For pain­ters, set your easels in ar­eas that keep you out of the way of traf­fic. The park­ing area is ac­tive through­out the day and there is an ac­tive church com­mu­nity.

In­side the church won­drous retablo paint­ings are part of two al­tar screens in the Span­ish Colo­nial style known as rere­dos. One of these rere­dos is the largest sur­viv­ing al­tar screen at­trib­uted to An­to­nio Mol­leno. Fine ex­am­ples of Span­ish Colo­nial bul­tos (carv­ings of saints) and fur­ni­ture are also in­side. The icon paint­ing “Nue­stro Padre San Fran­cisco de Asis” by Fa­ther Bill McNi­chols hangs above the front door­way in­te­rior.

Please note that pho­tog­ra­phy of the in­te­rior is not al­lowed. Mass on Sun­days is at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. For more in­for­ma­tion about the San Fran­cisco de Asís Church par­ish the web­site is san-fran­cisco-de-asis.org.

Adam Schal­lau

Taos News file photo.

1 1. “Church — Ran­chos de Taos,” color wood­cut by Gus­tave Bau­mann, 1919

Taos News file photo/Cour­tesy Parks Gallery.

2 2. “Ran­chos Church I (Lenny's View),” oil paint­ing by Taos artist Jim Wag­ner, 2010

Cour­tesy Ven­tana Fine Art, Santa Fe.

3 3. Some con­tem­po­rary artists like to take ad­van­tage of the church's unique lines and play with color, such as Mar­garet Nes' pas­tel “GreyGreen Skies at Ran­chos.”

Taos News file photo

5 5. A paint­ing of San Fran­cisco de Asís Church do­nated to Holy Cross Hos­pi­tal by “Taos Mas­ter” Charles Collins.

Cour­tesy Har­wood Mu­seum of Art.

4 4. Gene Kloss, “Cen­turies Old,” 1979, etch­ing, dry­point and aquatint on pa­per; anony­mous gift to the Har­wood Mu­seum col­lec­tion.

Taos News archive.

6 6. One of the most well-known oil paint­ings of the his­toric church was cre­ated by Ernest Blu­men­schein, (1921-29) a Taos So­ci­ety of Artists found­ing mem­ber.

Taos News file photo.

A mod­ern, ex­pres­sion­is­tic paint­ing of the fa­mous church by Taos artist Bren Price.

Cour­tesy Har­wood Mu­seum of Art/Romona Scholder. Cour­tesy Greg Moon Art. Cour­tesy Adam Schal­lau. Cour­tesy Amon Carter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1971.16

1. Fritz Scholder's “Incog­nito Artist at Ran­chos de Taos,” 1978, color litho­graph. 2. Marvin Moon's “Win­ter on the Plaza,” 12" x 28" acrylic on panel. 3. Adam Schal­lau pho­to­graph, 2013. 4. Ge­or­gia O'Ke­effe (1887-1986); “Ran­chos Church, New Mex­ico”; 1930-1931; oil on can­vas. 1

Cour­tesy Har­wood Mu­seum of Art. Cour­tesy Taos Art Mu­seum

5. Harold Joe Wal­drum, “La Som­bra de la Igle­sia de San Fran­cisco de Asís en Ran­chos de Taos,” circa 1983-1985, aquatint on pa­per; Gift of Ger­ald P. Peters, Col­lec­tion of the Har­wood Mu­seum of Art. 6. “Old Church of Ran­chos” (circa 1940), Ni­co­lai Fechin's in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the iconic struc­ture. 7. Geraint Smith, “Reflections,” 2018. 2

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